Academics

What’s the difference between a college and a university?

By Jo Calhoun

Does your student talk about wanting to go to a big school (or a small one) without appearing to understand what that might actually mean?

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High School Parent | College Parent

This is pretty common at the start of the college search when students are getting most of their “information” from the buzz in the high school hallways.

Comparing the advantages and disadvantages of larger and smaller schools is an important task, and parents can help. But what is the difference between a college and a university?

There is no official distinction between the two, but we can generalize. Both types of institutions can be public or private. Colleges tend to be smaller and typically offer only associate’s (2-year) or bachelor’s (4-year) degrees. Universities are usually larger and offer a broader array of degree options including graduate degrees.

That said, some colleges offer graduate degrees. Some universities do not. Occasionally, institutions offering multiple graduate degrees maintain the “college” designation because of long-standing tradition — Dartmouth College and the College of William and Mary come to mind. Small institutions sometimes adopt the “university” name to emphasize a breadth of course offerings or to tout new graduate programs; think of Nebraska Wesleyan University or Gallaudet University.

If you’re feeling more rather than less confused, take heart. There’s a way to cut through the murk and it’s called a “mission statement.” Mission statements differ significantly based on institutional type. A thoughtful look at institutional mission reveals major differences in how colleges and universities function, what they emphasize, and what your students can expect from their experience.

story-icon-bar-convo-3Colleges and universities widely accept classifications originally defined by the Carnegie Foundation. Those classifications inform influential (and controversial) rankings such as those found in U.S. News and World Report. Click here for more information on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

Although the Carnegie classifications (see box) can be confusing, a number of institutional types are commonly recognized in the U.S., and their missions, their histories, their very reasons for being, are quite different. Consider how institutional mission can influence the student experience.

Major research universities

Mission statements for these large institutions (which can be either private or public) almost always prioritize the generation of “original [ or new] knowledge.” In other words, research comes first. Often, some of their faculty members are purely “research faculty,” meaning that they teach minimally (and then only advanced graduate students) or not at all.

This emphasis on research does not mean that undergraduate students cannot get a first-rate education at these schools; they can. Large institutions typically make significant efforts to personalize the undergraduate experience. Large classes break into small discussion groups. Academic departments reach out to their undergraduate majors. Residence halls form communities by wing or by floor. Campus clubs also create community. Students who do well at large universities find their niche and capitalize on the breadth of opportunities available.

Liberal arts colleges

Liberal arts colleges, which are usually private, tout individualized attention and relationships built in a small community. Mission statements emphasize the classroom experience — teaching over research — and the education of the “whole person.” Students can expect smaller class sizes with more (or all) classes taught by full-time faculty rather than by graduate teaching assistants.

The fact that liberal arts colleges prioritize teaching over research does not mean that their faculty members are less strong or less well qualified than those at larger institutions. As a rule, faculty members who choose to teach at liberal arts colleges are as exceptional as those found at major research universities. They have just made a different choice about where to practice their craft.

One additional note: Most men’s and women’s colleges fall into the liberal arts colleges category. Obviously, their mission statements emphasize their additional commitment to the education of the gender of their students. The reasons that students choose a single-sex college are as various as they are valid.

Some parents worry about whether their children will be able to get a job with a liberal arts degree. Newspapers and business journals continually cite studies about average salaries and average life-time earning for college graduates based on choice of major. This debate deserves a more sophisticated discussion than is possible in this article, but a starting point for families is a serious discussion about the short-term and long-term goals of a student’s college education.

Comprehensive institutions

One current national trend is that high school graduates are choosing institutions closer to home. For almost every student, that means a comprehensive institution is among their choices.

Comprehensive institutions (both public and private) draw the majority of their students from within their geographic region. Their mission statements are more likely to express a commitment to serving the economic needs of the state and region in which they are located; they frequently offer continuing education for adult students. These institutions may also have focused on particular professions historically; they may originally have been teachers’ colleges, for example, in a larger state university system.

Comprehensive institutions vary in size and mission. They often offer both liberal arts and graduate degree options, and their course offerings and degree programs may change to reflect changing regional economic and employment demands. The flexibility of options for students is a particular advantage of regional universities, and again, students can expect to find fine faculty members there.

One additional note: Some comprehensive institutions are also classified as Hispanic-serving institutions. Unlike historically black colleges and universities, these institutions were not originally founded to serve Hispanic students. Rather, they met the criteria to be classified as Hispanic-serving based on the demographics of their student population.

Community colleges

Two-year institutions are usually public, and their mission statements also reflect their service to the surrounding region. Although community colleges have a reputation for offering technical and vocational associate’s degrees, more and more frequently, traditional-age students are opting to do their first two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. Most community colleges have “articulation agreements” with nearby colleges and universities that guarantee that students’ community college coursework will be accepted for credit at the four-year institution. Community colleges’ mission statements emphasize “access” — all students are welcome, and costs are low.

Community colleges have a compelling mission, and faculty members generally choose to teach there because of their belief in that mission. Few researchers here! Students need to weigh the pros and cons of the community college experience. Most often, community colleges attract commuter students; without residence halls, community can be more difficult to build, as students have complicated lives, including part-time or full-time jobs and families. But the low cost and flexibility that community colleges offer are a huge advantage.

Religiously-affiliated institutions

As expected, mission statements of these institutions (virtually all privately-held) emphasize faith development in addition to educational achievement. Beyond that, their missions vary widely. Such institutions range from small Bible colleges to nationally known Jesuit institutions like Marquette and Georgetown. In early American history, most major Protestant denominations established colleges to educate young men for the clergy. Although those institutions have broadened their mission and continued to thrive, their original denominational ties are usually loose and minimal, more a historical legacy than a current influence.

Students who choose a religiously-affiliated institution may enjoy the experience of a more explicit connection between their academic study and their faith development or they may chafe at faith-based expectations. A review of an institutional mission statement can be really helpful in decision-making.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges

These institutions are another artifact of earlier American history and grew up in response to social need. They may be private or public, and in addition to academic achievement, their mission statements emphasize a commitment to the education of African Americans (HBCU’s) or Native Americans (tribal colleges). Although these institutions tend to be small, they graduate a disproportionate number of leaders. Their graduates are fiercely loyal and typically feel a commitment to honor the institutional and historical legacy of which they are a part.

Mission and college decision-making

When students are deciding on a college or university, mission rarely comes up in the conversation. It really should be a primary consideration. Mission influences size, cost, campus climate – in fact, it determines the nature of the entire student experience.

Families can deepen and strengthen the college decision-making process by asking informed questions during on-campus visits about institutional mission. Ask everyone — the campus tour guide, admission staff, faculty members, students in the union, senior administrators, student life staff. How does institutional mission inform their experience as a member of the campus community? How will it affect your student’s experience?

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